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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Carrying a Torch for Ethics

With any other controversial story involving $2 billion in taxpayers’ money, journalists would fall over themselves to cultivate a critical approach, writes Stephen J.A. Ward. Why is it different with the Olympics?

Controversy surrounding journalists participating in the cross-Canada Olympic torch relay has shone a glaring light on our fragile, easily compromised, grasp of journalism ethics.

It reveals that the principles of independence and objectivity are easily undermined in journalism today by a blurring of economic and journalistic aims.

Under the notion of “community involvement,” basic commitments to impartial coverage of a major event are set aside.

How convenient it is that the motives of the advertisers, marketers, and games organizers coincided with the motives of the participating news organizations.

It is much too convenient.

Participation in the relay reminds us that it is still an open question whether genuine editorial independence can be maintained in a time of dramatic changes in the media ecology.

If the wall between editorial and marketing was always imperfect in the past, today it is a crumbled heap of stones, on verge of becoming a joke.

When CTV announced that 27 of its broadcasters would carry the torch, the primary motive was not better news coverage or respect for journalism ethics. Economics and marketing was in the driver seat. These naked realities were covered by the fig-leaf of patriotism. As one press release stated: The participation of these storytellers proved that “a single flame can warm the hearts of an entire nation.”

No wonder the public is cynical about news media.

Go check the codes

How should Canadian journalists cover the Vancouver Olympics?

The answer is easy: They should adopt a critical, independent attitude that views the event impartially from a variety of perspectives.

Rather than carry a torch for the Olympics, Canadian journalists should carry a torch for journalism ethics.

If one examines codes of journalism ethics, it is clear that the default position is not to participate in Olympic events. Here are excerpts from the code of the Canadian Association of Journalists:

“We serve democracy and the public interest by reporting the truth. This sometimes conflicts with the wishes of various public and private interests, including advertisers, governments, news sources and, on occasion, with our duty and obligation to an employer.”

Consider this: “We will not give favoured treatment to advertisers and special interests. We must resist their efforts to influence the news.”

And finally, under the principle of Act Independently: “In our role as fair and impartial journalists, we must be free to comment on the activities of any publicly elected body or special interest organization. It is not possible to do this without an apparent conflict of interest if we are active members of a group we are covering.”

I italicize the final sentence to show that it conflicts with participation in the Olympics.

These excerpts drive home a central point: Journalistic integrity suffers when journalists participate in the events they cover.

Now, either these words mean something, or they do not. Journalists cannot conveniently ignore these principles when we feel like it, or because the event is in Canada.

Journalists agree that reporters should not cover environmental groups of which they are members; they agree that journalists should not cover a protest and walk in the protest at the same time. So is the Olympic Games an exception?

Seeking an exception

The only way the default position could be set aside ethically is if journalists could provide strong counter-reasons for participation. Can persuasive reasons be given?

The answer is, flatly, no.

Four types of reasons can be given for participation. All fail, ethically.

One type is economic. With millions invested in coverage, participation is needed to attract audiences and market the “product.”

But economic reasons don’t trump ethical considerations. Another type is personal. Some journalists may agree to participate because they are sports fans or they want an Olympic experience. Personal desires don’t amount to ethical reasons.

A third type of reason argues that participation produces special journalistic insight into the process, enlightening the public; or participation shows that journalists are involved with their communities. These reasons are not sufficient to outweigh the reasons against participating.

Why?

Because the claim of special insight for the public is dubious. Did any of the relay stories by participating journalists provide special insight? I doubt it. Moreover, “community involvement” should not undermine journalistic independence. Too often, the phrase is rhetorical cover for economic and marketing imperatives.

A fourth reason is that journalists wish to express their patriotism and solidarity. But it is not the journalist’s job to act as flag-waving patriot or cheerleader. It is not the journalist’s job to make sure that the world goes away from Vancouver with a rosy view of the event and Canada.

Journalists fulfill their public role by providing citizens with non-laudatory, probing reportage and analysis of the games — even if such analysis offends some viewers.

Credible investigators?

So, the default position honors the general principle of independence. What other reasons can be given for non-participation?

To begin with, participation generates a reasonable apprehension among the public that journalists may be in a conflict of interest.

Are journalists “on the take” from Olympic officials or advertisers? After seeing leading journalists participate in the relay, it is reasonable for the public to wonder whether these reporters can, the next day, adopt an objective attitude toward coverage.

Also, the games are a controversial event that will eat up at least $2 billion in taxpayers’ dollars. In any other case, where controversy swirled around a massive outlay of public funds, journalists would fall over themselves to cultivate a critical, non-participatory approach. So why is it different with the Olympics?

Surely the Canadian public, including the folks protesting the event, have a right to expect a non-participatory media whose reporters try not to take sides on a controversial event.

But to participate is to take sides. It is to be seen by the public to take sides.

What will happen after the Olympics if we learn that cost of the Olympics is much higher than publicly disclosed, or that there are other serious concerns? Will journalists who once acted as boosters be seen as credible investigators of these problems?

Compromise one’s ethics?

In conclusion, read what CP reporter Stephanie Levitz in Alberta wrote about her participation in the relay.

She had reasoned that carrying the torch would help her be less “aloof” from the story and help her understand the attraction of the Olympics.

However, she concluded that running the relay did not allow her to write anything about the event that the public did not already know. “So, was the story I got from running in the relay worth compromising my ethics?” she asked. “No.”

But, Levitz adds, the issue did force a healthy debate about what journalism ethics means in today’s rapidly changing environment.

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